I do have strong policy preference, and that preference originates from my ideological leanings. But the preference only sets the default position, or more accurately, the initial stance. I am willing to be swayed by data and models but then again, over the years, I have learned data and models can be bent so much even with the best assumptions, it can be interpreted in various ways that make the numbers never quite as objective as it is made out to be. In the end, it is the context of the numbers that is important, not the numbers themselves. Numbers alone can be meaningless in social science, and economics.

I have become less ideological over the years, especially after the 2008 global financial crisis, and my policy preference is driven more and more by empirics. But after a year in the public sector, I find my preference has not quite been assaulted by empirical results. Rather, it has been a lesson on compromise and second or even third-best solutions.

Second-best solution is arrived at when the ideal solution is not possible given some constraints. The best solution is technically possible in the sense that it is technologically or economically possible. However, the challenges from the political or social aspects make it difficult to achieve fully.

For instance, I prefer to have the ECRL be cancelled outright. It does not seem very economically viable, and there are cheaper ways to encourage connectivity across the country while developing the areas outside of the peninsular economic centers. But the need to be careful with China, especially at a time when the global economy is at risk of heightened protectionism with Malaysia dragged into an unwanted trade dispute, means my policy preference is out of reach.

And it is not merely a theoretical concern. After all, China did employ unfair trade practices on the Philippines just to punish the latter over totally unrelated issues involving the overlapping claims in the Spratlys and the Paracels several years back. China can be a big bully, as any big power can be, and Malaysia being a small open economy should not test that proposition by too much. We have been successful in pushing for our case with China, but one has to wonder where is that line that we should not cross.

That is one example of having to land on a second-best solution, with an external consideration.

But more often than not, the challenges are internal in nature.

In a democracy where consensus is absent, the available solutions are frequently second best. There are so many stakeholders to take care, making compromises a must.

Just today, a senior civil servant asked how do I feel about working in the public sector, and how does it compare against the private sector. I answered that professionally, working in the public sector was tougher than in the private sector. In the former, there were so many parties to manage and to satisfy, whereas in the private sector, one could doggedly pursue an agenda, or even bulldozed it all the way through. In a way, achieving the ideal solution is easier outside of government than inside of it.

However, that does not mean the public sector is redundant. Many things do require the public sector to work and cannot be done through the private sector alone. It is the reality of a non-anarchist world, which is true almost everywhere in this world.

This can be linked back to the manifesto of Pakatan Harapan.

The Institute for Democracy and Economics Affairs, a think tank I somewhat have a relation with, today criticized the government for being overambitious with its election manifesto, and for the government’s weak resolve in delivering its promises.[1]

I would say that the manifesto is an example of the ideal solution, and the current situation is a second-best solution.

And this does not yet account for the fact that even the manifesto is a work of compromise, and that a manifesto as an ideal is supposed to be bold (in a good way, not the Brexit shambolic way). Furthermore, many supporters of the government work on having reasonable compromise. I for one is not 100% in agreement with the manifesto. But the urgent need for reforms after years of proliferating brazen grand corruption meant compromise had to be made to achieve a goal of cleaning the country. Second-best solution was what we had, because the ideal was not achievable.

Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedHafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedHafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

But coming back to the criticism leveled by the think tank on the government lacking sufficient resolve to deliver institutional reforms, I think I can come out and say such reforms are still coming and it is not clear whether on its own context that it would be demoted from the ideal to the second best solution. Besides, it is not as if there was no reform at all. All too often, people forget the significant reforms that are already staring them in the eyes, be it the separation of powers between the prime minister and the finance minister, wider application of open tender, greater transparency and freer media.

There are challenges even in the areas I have cited where reforms have happened. But wide-ranging reforms require time, especially in a robust democracy. Mock the line all you want, but you know it is true.

The important thing is that, we must persist. Democracy simply does not end at the ballot box. It is more than just going out to vote. A fancy deck does not a reform make, too.

Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedHafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedHafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — The government has set a list of unrealistic goals and showcased a lack political will to fulfil other achievable promises made in the Buku Harapan GE14 election manifesto, according to the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas). Ideas research director Laurence Todd (photo, above) said the think-tank’s ongoing Projek Pantau monitoring of 244 selected sub-promises found little progress made to about 30 percent of the “unrealistic goals” set in areas of education, institutional reforms and the economy. [Alyaa Alhadjri. Report card on Harapan shows ‘unrealistic goals’ in manifesto. Malaysiakini. June 28 2019]

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